Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Final Jeopardy—The Answer is the Most Beloved Game Show Host

A few years ago Alex Trebek showed of the Day Time Emmy Awards that he and the show  had won.  Many more since then.  Among many other honors Trebek especially cherished his Peabody Award.

Amid the celebration of the deliverance of democracy and decency 2020 slapped us once again alongside the head.  On Monday came word that the long-time host of Jeopardy! Alex Trebek died peacefully at his home after a valiant and public two year battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old.

Trebek was not just a departed celebrity to be remembered in the In Memorium reels at the end of the year and on next year’s Emmy Awards—he was a cultural icon who was an important part of the lives of so many of us.  It was almost a personal relationship that transcended the separation of the TV screen.  I was one of those people, as anyone familiar with my love of trivia would suspect.

I was a fan of the original run of the show hosted by Art Flemming from the beginning of its run in 1964 watching it and playing along whenever I was home from school.  When Trebek took over a high-tech remount of the program in syndication twenty years later I likewise made sure to catch it whenever my work schedule permitted it.  When we finally got a TV with a DVR, I recorded the shows to watch when I got off the bus from Woodstock every afternoon.  In the two years of my retirement my daily schedule revolves around the program’s 3:30 air time on Chicago’s Channel 7.  I would get mightily annoyed if the show was preempted by some breaking news lie a mass shooting or chasing the Black Cowboy on his Pinto down Lakeshore Drive.  Worse was when Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s daily Coronavirus news conferences ran long.  Catastrophically worse was anytime the Cheeto-in-Charge’s antics were the cause.

I was still weak and recovering from gall bladder surgery when Trebek straight forwardly announce that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.  He was taking the essentially painful death sentence with much more equanimity than I had with my relatively routine recovery.

Trebek was born in the working class iron mining city of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada on July 22, 1940.  He was the son of George Edward Trebek, a chef who had emigrated from Ukraine as a child, and Lucille Lagacé, a Franco-Canadian. He grew up in a bilingual French-English household. He attended Sudbury High School (now Sudbury Secondary School) and then attended the University of Ottawa from which he graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1961.  Later when asked what he studied in college he joked, “Philosophy—I know why I’m here.”  That background also made him the poster boy for a Liberal Arts education at a time when that was under assault. 

Trebek was first interested in a career in TV news but before even completing his degree, he began working part time for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1961.   According to Trebek, “I did everything, at one time replacing every announcer in every possible job.”  He would go on to read the CBC national radio news and cover a wide range of special events for CBC Radio and CBC Television, including curling and horse racing. As Jeopardy! host he always to special delight when curling came up as an answer or a question.


Twenty-three year old Alex Trebec hosted Music Hop on the CBC.

Trebek’s first hosting job was on the teen dance party a la Dick Clark Music Hop in 1963.His career really took off in In 1966 he hosted a high school quiz show called Reach for the Top, a foray into the game show format at which he was especially adept.  Other CBC assignments were classical music programs including performances by Glenn Gould, a weekly skating program and Strategy, a weekday afternoon game show.  Juggling multiple assignments at once from 1971 until the end of 1972, he hosted I’m Here Til 9, the local morning drive radio show on CBC Toronto.

Based on his success and popularity fellow Canadian Alan Thicke invited him to come to the States in 1973 to host a new NBC TV game show he produced, The Wizard of Odds.  In those days many game shows came and went ephemerally.  His first show lasted only one season by he quickly followed up with   High Rollers (which replaced Wizard), from 1974–1976 and again from 1978–1980, and Classic Concentration from 1987–1991. He was so popular that he was the only host with three programs on the air at one time.  In addition there were a dizzying array of other shows and two periods when he hosted game shows in both Canada and the USA.

Trebek took particular pride in his work ethic and boasted in one of his final interviews that he was proud to “have been employed  except for less than six months” since he came to America.  He might have noted that his string of jobs in Canada was uninterrupted since college, too.

In 1984 came the call that would change his life.

Jeopardy! went a long way to making creator, erstwhile big band boy singer and TV impresario Merv Griffin one of the richest men in show business.

The original men of Jeopardy!--Announcer Don Pardo, creator/producer Merv Griffith, and host Art Flemming.

According to Griffin, he was bemoaning the lack of smart question and answer game shows in the aftermath of the quiz show scandals of the ‘50’s.  His wife suggested instead of asking questions, why not give the answers and have the contestants figure out the questions?  It was such a good idea that he sold it to NBC without even producing the customary pilot.

Griffin picked Art Fleming, a strapping 6’4” former college football player and World War II Navy dive bomber pilot to host the show.  Fleming had experience as a radio announcer, TV pitchman—he intoned the famous “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” catch phrase—and middling actor, but had never hosted a game show.  But he was a natural, both warm and authoritative.

Fleming he never missed a show taping on his watch, which included the NBC daily run from 1964 to 1975, a weekly syndicated version in ’74 and ’75, and a brief revival in ’78-’79. 

While the show went off the air for a while, Griffin was constantly asked when it would come back.  In on March 30, 1984 he launched a new daily syndicated version hosted Trebek,

The new version of Jeopardy! became one of the most successful syndicated programs of all time and is still in production.  Trebek matched and surpassed Fleming’s iron man record hosting every scheduled show for 36 years except for one when he and Pat Sajak of Griffith’s other game show hit Wheel of Fortune swapped places as an April Fool’s joke.

Always the sharp dressed,                                                                                                                             

Over the years the famous answer board became more high tech and the set glitzier.  But the answers are still challenging lots of geniuses-on-the-couch, each of whom believes he could become another Ken Jennings—the boyish Utah geek who racked up 74 consecutive games on the show in 2004—if only he or she could somehow get on the show and master the thumb buzzer.

Trebek’s wide experiences; eclectic and compulsive reading; extensive travel; bilingualism; equal savviness in academic topics, pop culture, and sports; and innate curiosity made him the perfect fit for the most erudite of TV quizzes.  He carefully prepared before each show, reviewing—and sometimes rejecting or re-writing the answers and questions prepared by the show staff.  If he had any doubt or question, he personally researched the issue mostly using his old-school collection of reference books.  On the set he was suave and sophisticated without ever seeming supercilious or condescending.  He was friendly with his guest contestants and seemed genuinely interested in their lives in conversations behand the scenes and as tape rolled.  He had a genuine, ready wit but tried to keep the focus on the game and contestants.

Trebek typically recorded a week’s worth of programs—five games—twice a week including regular games, College and teacher tournaments, celebrity competitions, and Season Tournament of Champions.

He kept up that schedule despite several health problemsheart attacks in 2007and ’12, an injured Achilles tendon from chasing a burglar who had entered his San Francisco hotel room requiring six weeks in a cast, and a subdural hematoma from a fall at his home in 2017. Then in March 2019 Trebek announced his cancer diagnosis and acknowledged it was usually fatal within six months but pledged to try and beat the odds and continue working as long as he could.  He taped periodic health updates afterwards mater-of-factly discussing he health.

Despite having to wear a silver white wig on camera to cover for his chemo-therapy hair loss, views saw little difference in Trebek’s daily work.  But he confided to interviews that he was often in intense pain suffering from the effects of the disease itself, chemo-therapy, and immune system therapy. He sometimes despaired.  But when he put on one of his sharp suites,  knotted his natty tie, and strode confidently onto the set, “it was like a switch turned on,” even if he barely made it back to his dressing room and writhed on the floor in agony.

When the California Coronavirus lock-down forced the show to go into hiatus, Trebek took the time to write the memoirs he once said he would never do.  Alex Trebek The Answer Is...Reflections on My Life was his gift to his fans who he suspected might be in need of something to read in sequestration.

Trebek spent the time at his long-time California home with his second wife of 30 years Jean Currivan, a real estate project manager. They had two children, Matthew and Emily, and Trebek adopted his first wife’s daughter Nicky.  They were a close family and often traveled the world together for enjoyment and in support of his many world-wide charity causes.  At home Trebek was more comfortable in jeans, chambray work shirts, boots, and battered baseball style caps.  He was a master do-it-yourselfer who completed many projects and renovations on his home.  He built and his final moths restored a bench swing on his patio where he would sit for hours with his wife.

Trebek and his wife Jean Currivan.

When the Covid restrictions relaxed, Trebek returned to social distancing redesigned set in August to tape his 36 season of shows.  He and his producers and staff all new it would probably be his last although he just signed a contract renewal through 2022.  In one of the question and answer sessions he regularly held with his audiences one of them asked him who he wanted to replace him, “Betty White,” he said without missing a beat.  Earlier before his diagnosis but when his age was coming into question, he had floated Meredith Vieira who had hosted Who Wants to be a Millionaire as a gender smashing possibility.  The producers may have tipped their hand when at the beginning of the season they announced that all-time Jeopardy! Champ Ken Jennings had been signed in a new role as consulting producer and brand ambassador, a hint that he might be warming up in the bullpen.

Jeopary! champ Ken Jennings may be in line to host the show.

Despite pain and weakness, Trebek continued to tape shows until just two weeks before his death.  His last episode will be shown on December 25Christmas Day. A week or two of shows highlighting best work, it is likely that the program will return with a new host after the first of the year.

Trebek returned to his beloved home and died just as he had hoped, sitting on the swing, holding his wife’s hand, and “watching the horizon.”

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